SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide
Nissan first made a name for itself by selling small sedans with performance far beyond their modest price. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the company's cars were called Datsuns, the 510 sedan established a following that continues to this day. Twenty years later, the hot little Nissan was the Sentra SE-R, a 140-horsepower fun machine. Then Nissan changed course, exchanging sports-oriented cars for more the more mainstream designs of its "three-sedan strategy." Oops. Remember the old saying "do what you do best?"
Around the time that Nissan changed its corporate policy, its fortunes took a nose dive. For a while, Nissan's future looked bleak. But no longer. A recent partnership with Renault brought in much-needed cash to develop new vehicles. One of these is the new 2001 Sentra sedan. The three-sedan lineup is still in place, with the Sentra, Altima, and Maxima, but all three sedans, and especially the Sentra, are much sportier than their immediate predecessors. Nissan is back to doing what it did best.
But don't think that Nissan is sacrificing the comfort and convenience that most people want for the desires of a few sports car types. The new Sentra is the best of both worlds. It's completely redesigned, and slightly larger outside, but still conveniently compact, with has increased interior space as well. It's offered in Nissan's usual "value-oriented" XE, popular GXE, and sporty SE trim levels. But don't think that the XE is an underequipped loss leader. It has most of the features that buyers want as standard equipment, and the GXE and SE add to that with power windows, mirrors, and doorlocks, air conditioning, and more included as standard.
Most importantly for those who remember the old Sentra SE-R, the new Sentra SE is its direct descendent. And a very worthy one it is, with useful power and good economy, practical space and sporty flair. I just spent a week with one, and still have a grin on my face.
APPEARANCE: Nissan is moving toward a unified look for its sedans. So the newest Sentra looks very much like the larger Altima and Maxima, far more so than at any previous time. The styling, by Southern California-based Nissan Design International, balances a generally rounded shape with subtly edgy lines. Its low hood line and prominent passenger cabin show an emphasis on passenger space. The flat front panel gives it a strong resemblance to the latest Altima, and is echoed in the complexly-shaped rear panel. The Sentra SE has a monochrome finish, with no chrome trim except for its badging. Although it's not particularly flashy, it doesn't look like an entry-level car.
COMFORT: The 2001 Sentra SE is remarkably roomy for its exterior size. Its interior is unpretentiously functional, and finished to a high standard. The SE is a good driver's car, with controls placed well and instruments clearly visible. Its manually-adjustable front sport buckets are supportive and covered with grippy synthetic material. Leather is found on the steering wheel and shift knob, and the instruments are in Nissan's sport-oriented black-on- white style. Interior storage is found in moderately-sized door pockets, a large glove box, the cassette/CD-partitioned center console box, and a dash-top covered compartment. The new Sentra's rear seat is more spacious than expected, and will hold two medium-large people in reasonable comfort, although three smaller ones will fit better. The trunk is sized for the car's capacity, and has an emergency inside release.
SAFETY: The 2001 Nissan Sentra's chassis has front and rear crumple zones and side-guard door beams. All seating positions have three-point safety belts. Side airbags and antilock brakes are available.
ROADABILITY: The old Sentra SE-R was known for sporty handling and a fun-to-drive character. The new one is, if anything, even better. The suspension is standard Nissan, with MacPherson struts in front and Nissan's patented "Multi-Link Beam" axle in the rear. The new chassis structure is considerably more rigid than that of any previous Sentra, with a longer wheelbase and wider track as well. What this means for handling is that the suspension can be tuned more softly, for added comfort and better compliance and handling over rough roads, with no loss of sporty maneuverability. A "Performance Package," with 16-inch wheels and lower-profile tires and a limited-slip differential is offered for the SE, but my test car didn't have it. No great loss there for everyday driving (spirited everyday driving, because the SE is very playful), although the limited-slip would be useful for autocrossers. In box-stock trim, the 2001 Sentra SE has a very European feel, with plenty of suspension travel and body roll, but very good grip. It's big fun on a small budget.
PERFORMANCE: Both Sentra engines are 16-valve twin cam four-cylinder designs. The XE and GXE make do (nicely) with a 1.8-liter engine, up from last year's 1.6. Its 126 horsepower is 11 more than was delivered by last year's base engine thanks to an injection of technology from the Maxima's V6. Not bad, but the SE has the latest version of Nissan's 2.0-liter powerplant, now with 145 hp at 6,400 rpm (an increase of five) and 136 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm, four more than last year. It, too, has a number of mechanical refinements, headlined by an adaptation of the variable- capacity muffler first used in last year's Maxima. This helps give it strong performance from a standstill and good top-end power as well. It's enthusiastic and energetic, and aided well by the standard five-speed manual gearbox. A good choice of gear ratios and smooth, short-throw linkage make it a joy to use, although the engine's power curve is such that excessive shifting is not necessary.
CONCLUSIONS: Rumors of Nissan's demise have been exaggerated. And its sporty spirit is making a comeback with the 2001 Sentra SE.
SPECIFICATIONS 2001 Nissan Sentra SE Base Price $ 14,899 Price As Tested $ 15,419 Engine Type aluminum alloy dual overhead cam inline 4-cylinder Engine Size 2.0 liters / 122 cu. in. Horsepower 145 @ 6,400 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 136 @ 4,800 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 99.8 in. / 177.5 in. Curb Weight 2,674 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 18.4 Fuel Capacity 13.2 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P195/60 HR15 Bridgestone Potenza RE92 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock optional Suspension, front/rear independent Mac Pherson strut / torsion beam with multiple location linkage Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 24 / 31 / 26 0 to 60 mph 8.6 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination charge $ 520